Back to Juneau? Some lawmakers think it’s time

Others say there’s no need to hurry back

Now that the debate over Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan for spending federal relief money is over, some lawmakers are calling for the Legislature to reconvene in Juneau to finish legislative work for this session.

There’s agreement the Legislature will need to reconvene at some point. A capitol budget still needs to be passed and the revised program legislative requests will need to be ratified at some point. However, there’s less of a consensus on when exactly that work will take place.

“We should go back now,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, in an interview.

Begich was in favor of returning to Juneau to appropriate federal CARES Act money rather than approving Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal for using RPLs to distribute the money. Begich and Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, wrote a letter to their fellow lawmakers urging a return to Juneau and included a plan for doing so.

“That plan had specific steps that could be taken,” Begich said. “We could start that process immediately.”

Begich said all six members of his caucus agreed on a return to the capital city, but that’s not a unanimously held opinion.

“There’s no rush,” said Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage.

There will likely be additional relief funding for the state from the federal government, Giessel said, but that could be dealt with through RPLs. She said the capitol budget can wait.

“We have a capital budget that was left unfinished, that is something Sen. (Nathsha) Von Imhof, (R-Anchorage) is looking at,” Giessel said.

[Depending on how meeting goes, lawmakers could find themselves back in Juneau]

Reconvening in September has been discussed, Giessel said, but there is unnecessary to reconvene immediately.

Waiting until the regular session finishes on May 20 would mean going into a special session, which comes with more restrictive terms.

That could help the Legislature focus on issues related to the economy and COVID-19 and not get bogged down in personal legislation, according to House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage.

“We needed to set aside personal legislation,” Pruitt said. “We don’t need to be naming bridges while people are worried about getting sick.”

Pruitt also acknowledges the need to return to the capitol eventually but says the Legislature lacks the discipline needed to focus solely on COVID-19 related issues.

But if the Legislature were to be called into special session, the session would be circumscribed by whoever made the call. For the Legislature to call itself into session it would need two-thirds, or 40, total votes, and there would have to be agreement on the scope of the session.

The governor could also call the Legislature back and set the terms of the special session. Asked when the governor thinks the Legislature should return and what issues should be prioritized, Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner said in an email, “The legislature can reconvene on its own volition and even extend the session with a two-thirds majority. It also has the option to call itself into special session without delay.”

[The budget is passed and lawmakers have gone home]

House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said in a statement his caucus remains “on standby” to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is our hope to address the capital budget later this year, and if possible, consider other important proposals that fell by the wayside due to the public health crisis,” Edgmon said.

Begich, however, remained adamant lawmakers should return to Juneau, to not “just wait until the next crisis, we need to be working on the economic plan for the future,” he said. “The process is collective, that would require some level of consensus to get it to the end of the road. I really do think there is a way for us to move forward.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.

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